Waymo to test self-driving vehicles on Novi roads

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Google’s self-driving vehicle spinoff, Waymo, is bringing its autonomous vehicle testing to Michigan, starting next week. The cold weather tests will be the first on the state’s public roads by the Silicon Valley company.

Waymo is the latest company to test autonomous vehicles in Michigan, where politicians and business leaders have spent the last few years trying to push the state into a leading position nationally for autonomous vehicle testing, development and prototyping.

By the beginning of November, Waymo will send its Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans out on public roads in Novi. The vehicles will map roadways to prepare to test in snow, sleet and ice this winter. The company has tested in cold weather before, but said Michigan’s climate offers Waymo a chance to expand its presence to a state more likely to deliver adverse conditions.

The minivans will launch from Waymo’s self-driving technology development center in Novi, which it opened in 2016. Once engineers determine how the vehicles’ suites of sensors and mapping tools operate in the Michigan weather, they will test in self-driving mode on public roads. A trained engineer will be at the wheel during all of the tests.

“Our Chrysler Pacifica minivans are our most advanced self-driving vehicles to date, and testing in snow, sleet and ice will help further hone our driving capabilities,” John Krafcik, Waymo CEO and a former Ford Motor Co. executive, said in a statement. “Having lived through 14 Michigan winters, I’m confident that there are few better places that will prepare our self-driving cars for winter conditions.”

Sleet, snow and road salt are among a slew of factors autonomous vehicle makers plan to work through as they prepare to bring the vehicles to market in the early 2020s. Ford, General Motors Co., Waymo and some suppliers have tested vehicles in bad weather, but experts have said plenty of work remains to get the self-driving vehicles to operate under all the conditions human drivers currently can.

Precipitation is a two-part problem for the vehicles. Rain and snow falling from the sky can interfere with some of the sensors on the car, in addition to building up on the surface of those sensors. Once the precipitation hits the ground, developers also have to make sure the car’s hardware and software “read” the road well enough to know when it’s slick.

Waymo and others don’t want to make self-driving cars that only work when it’s sunny. Krafcik said the vehicles will be tested “extensively” in the cold weather conditions.

Gov. Rick Snyder said at a mid-October American Center for Mobility event that Michigan’s weather is a big plus for autonomous vehicle testing. That facility at Willow Run in Ypsilanti is scheduled to open in December. Waymo’s initial plans call for tests on roads in the “Greater Detroit” area.

“Waymo clearly shares our concern for and commitment to safety for Michigan residents,” Snyder said in a statement. “I’m proud that Waymo chose Michigan to expand its testing as they take their self-driving vehicles into the next phase. Michiganders certainly understand the challenges of driving in the winter and I look forward to seeing how Waymo’s engineers can address that in these next-generation vehicles.”

To date, Waymo’s vehicles have driven 3.5 million miles on public roads in more than 20 U.S. cities, the company said. Michigan will be the sixth state in which Waymo tests it self-driving technology.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau